I’ve been considering writing about this fantastic album for a while now. There is something so odd about finding a new artist who embodies everything you love about a very obscure and very localised music scene from the 1970s. I’m trying to get my head around how Canadian Colter Wall’s self-titled album could have ever gotten made in 2017.
Perhaps I should begin with my own experiences in this area. My interest in the 1970s Texas songwriters scene stemmed from my love of the music of Steve Earle. Earle was relatively big in Ireland. Look no further to Mundy/Sharon Shannon’s incredibly popular bubblegum cover of Galway Girl in 2008, which is still the 8th highest selling single in Ireland to date. Earle crossed genres between Country, Rock, Bluegrass, Folk, and dabbled in my background of Irish Traditional music.
If you follow Earle’s lineage back, you will find he cites his tutors in songwriting as two people: Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt. As fans of Earle, myself and friends dug deep into his catalogue and eventually found ourselves watching the 1975 documentary by James Szalapski, Heartworn Highways. This film depicts the spawning of the Outlaw Country movement out of the folk singers in Texas at the time.
Heartworn Highways was a staple of our late night DVDs back in rural Tyrone, with outstanding performances and insights into artists such as Townes Van Zandt, Guy Clark, Rodney Crowell, David Allen Coe, Steve Young and, of course, Steve Earle. The more we watched this documentary, the more we dug deeper into the mythology and music associated with that scene, finding obscure CDs or bootlegs or cover versions and sharing around like it was pure gold. I even picked up one of my prized possessions around that time for about a tenner: a signed copy of Our Mother the Mountain, arguably Townes’ greatest studio album.
I want to say the hype for this music amongst my peers picked up around 2003/2004, with Earle’s performance in the Ulster Hall on anti-Bush The Revolution Starts Now Tour being a noteworthy high point. The band that I was in played a raucous F the CC at a gig immediately following that show.
It’s difficult to say whether or not the internet helped with popularising obscure music, or whether it just allowed more people with obscure interests to openly and easily communicate. Although Earle has always held something of popularity in Ireland, Mundy’s Galway Girl cover certainly cemented it (ask any culchie DJ). I’m not lamenting the fact that Earle and his two mentors have gained in popularity, it is quite the opposite. I’m happy that more people are digging deeper into this amazingly rich music scene. It’s with this context that I’ll try and explain Colter Wall.
So imagine me, in Bristol’s Rough Trade shop, picking up a copy of this album on the recommendation of the sticker (and I love anything Dave Cobb gets involved in). When I got home and put the CD on I was blown away. This album lived and breathed that 1970s songwriter scene from Heartworn Highways. Teenage me would not believe that this kind of record could get released in 2017, that it would have gone under my radar, and that it would have been one of the strong recommendations of a local record store. I was amazed at how intensely developed his sound was for a first album, and how this recording captured that atmosphere with pin-sharp accuracy.
Let’s analyse a few of the songs. The opening Thirteen Silver Dollars starts as a relaxed story about an encounter with the police that picks up about halfway through with a Cash style stomp along chorus. Not only does this song reference Bluebird Wine, Rodney Crowell’s contribution to Heartworn Highways, but also Blue Yodel Number 9, the Jimmy Rodgers song Earle fans will recognise as appearing on Earle’s live album Shut Up And Die Like An Aviator.
The next track, Codeine Dream opens with a Townes-inspired picking pattern reminiscent of Townes’ version of Cocaine Blues. The song’s theme feels like a sequel to Townes’ classic Waitin Around to Die, in that it could be about the same character. If that wasn’t enough, Colter also sings ‘Sometimes I get to thinkin’/ Why wait around to die’.
Following that, we have Me and Big Dave, a lowkey story about two social outcasts. There is one line that reminds me of Our Mother the Mountain and Buckskin Stallion Blues by Townes. Compare the lyrics ‘So I reach for her hand, and her eyes turns to poison/ And her hair turns to splinters, and her flesh turns to brine’, ‘I heard her sing in tongues of silver’ with Walls’ ‘Their ears made of stone and their tongues made of poison’.
The next song, Motorcycle mentions Thunderbird wine, a cheap & nasty fortified wine. The wine was a favourite with Towne Van Zandt penning Talkin Thunderbird Blues about the drink.
The album's centrepiece, Kate McCannon, a murder ballad that feels like a retelling of Earle’s bluegrass classic Carrie Brown (itself a very typical murder ballad) but set to the music of Ben McCulloch (minus the rousing major key chorus). There is another lifted phrase from a Townes song (Mr Mudd and Mr Gold) regarding the titular girl’s ‘long green eyes’, which I always assumed to mean greed/jealousy in the context of Townes’ song but perhaps just as a descriptive device in Wall’s.
The second half of the album features one song by Townes and one song that Townes had recorded. Snake Mountain Blues is played very well here, as is the duet of Fraulein with Tyler Childers.
Transcendental Ramblin’ Railroad Blues is similar to Earle’s Transcendental Blues in title only.
Altogether, I loved this album. My first listening experience was trying to figure out how to something that is so close to a 1970s Texas songwriter’s recording could be popular enough to arrive in my local record store. I enjoyed all the little references, audio and literary, to this period, and I’m sure I missed quite a few out. Looking forward to more from Colter Wall in the future.